One of my personal bugbears is textile product description – particularly as concerns the word “wool.” Most of my clothes purchases are made online these days, and it really annoys me to be looking at what I assume to be a nice wool dress, only to discover that it is, in fact, 100% viscose. Take the shorts above as an example. They describe themselves as a “wool short” and were turned up in a product search for “wool shorts”, but they in fact contain no wool at all. Now, the consumer can easily apprise themselves of the 0% wool content of this purportedly woollen garment by looking at the useful ‘about me’ tab – but there is still much about the way that this garment is being marketed and sold that is profoundly misleading. Should retailers be allowed to describe products which contain no wool as wool, or have them turn up in a product search with the word “wool” in it? Personally, I think not.
On ASOS, the search terms “wool dress” turns up 88 items. The wool content of these garments ranges from 5% . . .
. . .to 100%:
By far the majority of these 88 ‘wool dresses’ – more than two thirds, in fact – contained less than 50% wool.
Looking at the examples I’ve shown so far, you might think that price would be an immediate indicator of a garment’s non-wooliness — those River Island shorts are cheap, so what would you expect? Not a bit of it.
Cacharel’s £445 ‘plaid wool’ skirt contains a mighty 12% wool. I’m not sure if 12% even warrants the term ‘wool mix.’ Here, the word ‘wool’ seems to be there to add value to the garment’s generically “plaid” or “tartan” appearance. This is a common error of product description, as is the word “wool” when “yarn” is what is actually meant.
The words “lovely soft wool” in the description of this child’s sweater sold by Monsoon refer to the yarn from which this sweater is made – the actual wool content is virtually negligible at 5%.
UK trading standards are reasonably straightforward when it comes to textile labelling (“all items must carry a label indicating the fibre content either on the item or on the packaging”) but far less clear where product descriptions are involved. According to the documents I’ve looked at, the word ‘wool’ can be used as a descriptive term for the fibre of any animal – so the compound ‘angora wool’ is apparently fine. This merely muddies the waters further as far as I am concerned, and there are no guidelines at all about the percentage of real wool – ie actual wool from an actual sheep – that an item must contain before it can be described as ‘wool’.
Interestingly, Trading Standards does include specific guidelines for the descriptive use of the word ‘silk’: “which cannot be used to describe the texture of any other fibre – for example “silk acetate” is not permitted.” If an acetate blouse cannot be described as silk, then why can polyester shorts be described as wool? Personally, I think trading standards need to be updated to reflect the world of online retailing, product descriptions, and keyword searches generally, and I feel this is particularly important where sheep’s wool – a wonderful, sustainable, high-quality fibre is concerned.
I feel that:
1. A garment should not be described as ‘wool’ or turn up with the search term ‘wool’, unless its sheep’s wool content is more than 50%
2. a garment with a sheep’s wool content of between 20% and 50% should only be described with the terms “wool mix”
3. a garment with a sheep’s wool content of 12% or under should not contain the word ‘wool’ in its product description at all.
4. The word ‘wool’ should refer to sheep’s wool only, and there should be a clarification of trading standards to distinguish between different animal fibres.
5. When a garment’s fabric is composed of mixed fibres with a sheep’s wool content of less than 50%, the word yarn should be used when describing its composition.
I intend to write formally to UK trading standards and the campaign for wool about the problem of Wool 0%. Before I do, I’d really appreciate any and all feedback you might have. Do you agree with me? Or not? Have you come across other good examples of wool 0%? Do you have other points to add to my initial 5? How do the trading standards of other countries deal with this and similar issues? Can you direct me to any useful resources about standards of product description in online retailing? And finally, would those of you in the UK be interested in signing an online petition about this issue?
For the record, I have had two really ‘bad’ days this week, during which I’ve been unable to do much because of fatigue. (Will it ever just fook off?) At times when brain and body refuse to do anything strenous, knitting and the BBC can often save me from getting too crotchety. But it is hard not to feel crotchety when the Archers has turned into the everyday story of royal folk, with shameless plugs for HRH’s Tory Originals, and the peasants gleefully doffing their caps at the titled visitor. Also, how could the BBC allow this woeful sixth-form gubbins into its so-called ‘arts’ programming? Yentob, you numpty, for shame. And then there is this otherwise laudable project, spoilt by Neil Oliver’s irritating habit of addressing the viewer over his shoulder with-furrowed-brow-and-manly-mane, spouting inane speculations on the psyche of the Mesolithic. Tom refuses to watch anything with Oliver in it, but I do find him good for the occasional laugh. (I recommend fast-forwarding the iplayer to about 45 minutes in, and observing the absurd slo-mo gurn.)
When not feeling bloody rotten, I have been enjoying:
1) . . re-reading Our Mutual Friend. I had forgotten how good it is.
2) . . the output of different smokehouses. Really, is there any breakfast better than this? I also find the aesthetics of kipperskin quite compelling. Call me pecu, I do not care . .
. . though I am concerned that my neighbours may not share my obsession.
3) . . . being out and about with Bruce
The days are rather grey, and the weekend forecast is for snow, but the birds are going ape in the hedges, and there are flashes of early Spring everywhere you look.
4) . . . indoor colour
. . . who isn’t a sucker for yellow and purple at this time of year? On the subject of which . .
5) . . . purple knitting.
Now, this is curious, since I am not in the least a purple person (there is not a single purple item in my wardrobe, for example). This yarn has been sitting in my stash for an aeon – I bought it several years ago in a place with very poor lighting, thinking it was indigo blue. But it is most definitely purple – one of the purplest purples I have seen, in fact – and the more one knits it, the purpler it becomes. I rather like it. What am I knitting? Well, I am reformatting and updating a few of my patterns with a view to their forthcoming wholesale availability in Canada and the US, and I thought I’d make a fresh sample of one of my sweaters that only takes a few days to knit up. I am sure you can guess what it is. There may be a purple appearance soon.
Have a lovely weekend, however you are spending it!
I’ve been so saddened and appalled by the story that has been unfolding in your comments that I couldn’t sleep last night. Emma writes that “it is generally understood that you have to have two or three goes at the DLA to get what you are entitled to,” and indeed, from what you have all been saying, on both sides of the Atlantic this clearly seems to be the case. But what kind of governments have we got when disabled people have to fight in this way for the most basic forms of recognition? As the comments have been showing, this process is not the equivalent of a fairground ride – something you might “generally” expect to “have two or three goes” at – it is something so grueling and evil and offputting that the very thought of dealing with it makes one give up immediately. On top of everything else disabled people have to face – struggling and coping with the challenges of their conditions; dealing with an unadapted world in which their bodies or minds are treated as abnormal; the tricky business of simply getting through the day – they have to fight for recognition of their own identities? Repeat the process again and again, and be finally grateful for the pittance that may (or may not) eventually be awarded in the name of support? Bingo! You are, in fact, disabled! Look! You’ve won a prize!
What kinds of civil societies are these in which spouses and relatives are constantly expending their much-needed energies in defence of the identity and status of those in their care? Mothers, like Mary and Scamp and Lacer, repeatedly having to argue “but yes, my son really is disabled”; daughters and sons, like Lizzi and Oscar, doing the same for their fathers? A broken society is not the world of unmarried couples and errant yoofs that Iain Duncan Smith imagines, but a place where lawyers are being hired to secure basic forms of recognition for those with disabilities; where meagre state benefits are being fought for through costly litigation; and and where the sum of £18 will allow you subscribe to an online service promising to unlock the linguistic labyrinth that is the Department of Work and Pensions.
Believe me, I am under no illusions about things being rosier under the previous Tory administration headed by the esteemed member for Kircaldy and Cowdenbeath. But things can only get worse under a government whose plans for the wholescale decimation of the public sector are legitimised by a smokescreen of purported civil service “waste” and benefits “cheats.” In such a world, Sarah, Jen, Trialia and I – with our unfortunate inability to put on our bras, cut up our own food, make it down the street to the bus-stop, or on some days, just get out of bed – are cheating wastrels and we must be “trimmed.” And the trimming process seems purposely designed to heighten the sensations of dissasociation and disempowerment that one already feels acutely in this situation. Stick the knife in, DWP, why don’t you?
Jeanette hit the nail right on the head when she described the communications of the DWP as Kafkaesque. Claimants and agencies are effectively locked in a game of “yes you can” -“no I can’t” the aim of which is to make the claimant just shut up and go away. Many of you remarked on this as a strategy for weeding out the imaginary few who are not genuine, but the idea that those who are for real will simply refuse to shut up, is both cruel and utterly absurd. From the perspective of a government agency, I really fail to see the point of prolonging a process that is already incredibly involved and costly with appeals that — in their participation of the CAB, charitable organisations and the legal profession – can only enmesh said agency in further layers of complexity and expense. (In that respect, I found Xtiand’s comment very telling.) And from the perspective of the claimant, who is repeatedly being told that they and those who know most about their care, are effectively lying; that, whatever they, or their doctors or therapists say to the contrary, they can actually get in and out of the bath / turn themselves over in bed at night / put on their underwear / bend down without falling over / haul themselves unsteadily to a source of public transport – to these claimants it feels as if their own intimate knowledge of their own abilities and limitations – effectively, the last little shred of power they have left after everything else their conditions have robbed them of – has been wrested from their hands as well. Thanks for another kick in the teeth, DWP! Just what we need!
On a personal note, your comments have brought home to me just how far I underestimated the insanity of what goes on at the DWP, and I also must confess to a certain amount of foolish hubris where approaching the claim was concerned. Everyone – my mother, friends, those on my care team – kept telling me to get help with that form and I did not. “But I am someone who peddles words for a living,” I thought, “surely I can fill out a government form in a clear and straightforward manner?” But little did I know that my application would only be read for “trigger words;” that knowledge of such terms is limited to those who are willing to pay for it (see Rachel’s comment); and that the failure to use precisely the correct descriptive language for my mobility, limb weakness, balance problems, and exhaustion would result in those symptoms being entirely discounted. “Sorry, love, but the state does not recognise your own or your care teams’ honest, evaluation of your condition – you aren’t speaking the right language.” Josef K eat your heart out! I was equally unaware that the government regards words like ‘vulnerable’ and ‘unsafe’ as gambling tokens and that they are, in effect, coins that one has to feed into the DWP one-armed disabled bandit in distant hope of a pay-out prize. (see lizzi and roobedoo’s comments) Three wheelchair symbols! kerching!
What can such a system do but induce heartbreak and cynicism in everyone involved? Claimants, therapists, carers, managers, administrators, and those on the other end of the DWP ‘helpline’ like Robyn – who was subject to punitive measures if her calls assisting distressed claimants went on too long – all seem to regard the process with the same mocking pessimism. I can only sympathise with those who, like Deb now realise that she “went wrong because I told the truth” or Sarah, for whom it took three years to realise that it is “the trying not to be disabled, the managing and being the best you can be that hinders your applications.” And as Ruth writes,
“the process of convincing a stingy and skeptical bureaucracy of your limitations is humiliating and directly contrary to the positive energy required for healing and recovery. Your experience of the process as being nearly as bad as the injury itself is extremely common, and requires substantial psychological armouring and distancing to get through.”
Now I wasn’t lying when I said that the effects of the DLA process were second only to that of the stroke itself, just as I wasn’t lying when I wrote about the devastating and immobilising effects of neurological fatigue on that interminable form. I am lucky in that the stroke hasn’t left me with speech or cognitive difficulties; that it hasn’t affected my planning or volition; that I am someone who is quite willing to write bolshy letters to MPs, MSPs and national newspapers, and to carefully seek out advice from those who know the process better than I do. But there must be many claimants with serious mobility problems and care needs who lack these resources or support, or those who, like Lara’s mum or Roxsie, are perpetually shut out of the system because the very prospect of facing that dispiriting 60 page horrorshow is so bloody awful. Ruth and Colleen are both right about how the experience of focusing on one’s limitations can eat away at the resilience and strength that are absolutely essential to recovery from a stroke or other brain injury, or simply living day-to-day with any chronic condition that affects one’s physical or mental health. Through its punitive, opaque, labyrinthine and exclusionary processes, the Department of Work and Pensions is effectively placing yet another obstacle in front of those who already have far too many to deal with. And, as I said, given the axe-swinging plans of the present administration, things can really only get worse.
Yesterday evening, Tom returned home with trowels and forks and seed packets, my clothkits sun hat, a couple of hardy thyme and winter savoury plants, and the giant teacup planter he bought me for my birthday last year. These are the sad relics of our allotment, which we have now been forced to give up. Both of us cried a little: it was a painful reminder of how the happy rhythms of everyday life, and the many simple pleasures that we enjoy have been disrupted by my stroke. Tom has been transformed from a partner to a caregiver, someone whose business it has been to take me to the toilet, haul me in and out of the bath, put me to bed, provide my meals, clean up my mess, and generally jolly me along. And I am now someone who spends entire days on the sofa, who can only imagine what it once felt like to be busy, for whom whole weeks pass following same tiring ritual of exercise and rest, and whose biggest recent achievement is being able to curl up her toes a little. I would like to grow some vegetables. I would like to have the reserves of mental energy to be able to concentrate on, and develop an idea, for more than an half an hour at a time. I would like to spend whole days reading and writing again. And God, do I wish I could climb up a hill, or simply make it to the post-office and back without feeling like someone threw a brick at my head. I can only thank the Department of Work and Pensions for making everything I have to deal with at the moment just that little bit harder to bear.
Now, I don’t want to moan, but this space is somewhere where I like to be honest about my experience of recovery, so, to be frank, things are a bit rubbish at the moment.
1. We’d planned a short break this week on Barra and Harris, but one of Calmac’s ferries broke down; they cancelled our sailings, so no Hebrides for us. Boo.
2. With just a few days notice, the hospital have moved the date of my heart procedure back to the end of the month. I had mentally prepared myself for this to be happening very soon, and it seems strange now that it is not. Indeed, I feel rather at a loss for what I should do mentally: put it to the back of my mind? Remain in this weird state of expectant limbo for a further fortnight? I had also made plans for several happy things that were to happen after the op, and these have now been disrupted.
3. According to the government, I am not disabled. This seems rather odd, since I find it hard to walk, cannot lift or carry, need Tom to help me in and out of the shower, and spend entire days poleaxed with fatigue. I was paralysed by a stroke five months ago; my entire time is taken up with rehabilitation and rest; and my GP has declared me currently “unfit”. But apparently none of this equates to disability in the eyes of the current administration. To explain: after I was discharged from hospital, my care team instructed me to apply for DLA, as it is the key to certain government services I now need, such as return to work assistance. DLA is not a benefit – it is not related to income, and is not means tested. It is there for those whose mobility or mental health means that they need certain kinds of help or care. Someone like myself, whose mobility problems have meant we’ve had to adapt the bathroom, buy a new bed, and incur considerable travel costs as I am unable to walk or cart myself about to rehab, would normally be considered eligible for the lower level of DLA, which would also enable access to aforementioned government services. But not in the brave new world of Cleggatron’s big fookin society.
This is not about money. It is about being disabled. At the moment, I am a disabled person. Anyone who has read what I’ve written here since February will know that I am trying my utmost not to be, but unfortunately, right now, I am. I do not intend to be a burden on the state. I am not claiming, nor shall I ever claim any government “benefits.” I am not the Tory Press’s mythical nemesis, sitting on my arse all day, draining the public purse. But there are certain services – specifically those which are going to help my transition back into the workplace – for which I should be recognised as a disabled person. Now I know that I am a disabled person, but the government does not recognise me as one. So what am I, then? My reaction to this news about my identity and social status has been extremely complicated. I hope the academics among you will excuse me when I sum it up as a sort of reversal or failure of Althusserian interpellation.
Filling in the sixty pages of that berloody DLA form was a thoroughly humiliating and evil experience. I would say, with the exception of actually having the stroke, its the worst thing I’ve been through. Actually, I take that back — the worst thing is that, after the grueling task of listing and quantifying in insane detail all the things I unfortunately cannot do, I then receive a letter from the government that effectively says that I must have been lying, because actually, I can do them. This is how the government go about telling you that you are not, in fact, a disabled person.
“From a seated position, you can prepare a main meal for one person.” (gee, thanks. Would you like to see just how hard it is for me to bend down to get into the cupboards or oven? And pray tell me, how does one sit down to use a stove designed for upright human beings?)
“You can carry a laden tray to and from the kitchen” (with this arm? can I? would you like to see me try?)
“Outdoors, without assistance, you can walk X hundred metres” (unfortunately, there are days when I can’t even haul my ass from room to room)
Right now I cannot face what an appeal involves – effectively going cap in hand to that clueless wanker at the DWP explaining, “sorry, guv, actually I am disabled.” I imagine this is probably the case for many people in my situation and that the hideous process of being recognised as a person with a disability is simply too much for them to go through. It is certainly too much for me.
Apologies for this extremely ranty post, and for frequent reference to state apparatuses which readers from other nations will no doubt find inexplicable. I hope you do not feel that I am griping, or asking for sympathy, or insisting on government hand-outs or anything. I am not. I am a proud, and very independent sort of person who would simply like to be recognised as someone who currently has a disability. I’ve been unsure whether or not I should mention any of this here – but I am so berloody angry, and have been so brought down by the whole thing that, short of turning this space entirely silent, it would be impossible to hide. And, as I said, I am trying to write honestly about what recovery from stroke involves for me, so it would be wrong of me to disguise how I am feeling, out here, in ideological limbo.
Though I love the Gainsborough films, Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones and Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story, I am not generally a fan of contemporary cinematic takes on eighteenth- and nineteenth century literature. This is probably because of what I do: a generation of students who have grown up with the unshakeable idea that potato-faced Colin Firth is actually Mr D’arcy have destroyed much of my enjoyment of Austen and rendered Pride and Prejudice an unteachable text. That said, I was really looking forward to Jane Campion’s Bright Star: she’s a talented, intelligent director who’s interested in gender; the costumes looked just terrific; and I was intrigued by what I’d heard about Fanny Brawne’s relationship to stitch in the film. Much was being made of the fact that Campion had linked Brawne’s “feisty,” and “independent” character to her fondness for textiles and that her heroine designs and makes her own clothes.* I then saw a trailer at the cinema which further piqued my interest. A clip was shown of a “spirited” exchange with Keats, in which Brawne appeared to compare the art of stitch to that of poetry. Unlike poetry, she says, stitch is useful and potentially remunerative. While the path that Keats has chosen means that he will struggle for literary recognition and a living, stitch is something she can actually “make money from.” I was (mildly) blown away. You’ll know by now that much of my research focuses on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century textiles and that I’m particularly interested in the way that textiles mark and mediate women’s relationship to the division of labour. To have a woman of Brawne’s rank saying, in 1818, that her love of fashion had a practical purpose and that she saw dressmaking and design as a potential source of independent income was really quite extraordinary. Was Brawne going to sew her way out of dependence and potential penury? Support herself and Keats by the labours of the needle? What was Campion going to do with stitch?
The unfortunate answer is that stitch and textiles are, for Campion, mere directorial devices — props on which to hang her film’s undoubtedly sumptuous aesthetic. Despite the promise of that early exchange, the idea that stitch might be a practical and a profitable activity for a woman like Brawne was never alluded to or mentioned again. A short way into the film, it became apparent that Brawne’s “independent spirit” only extended as far as some curiously elliptical conversational sparring and the ability to wallow in her own desires. Brawne was only ever going to be someone who, like most women of her rank, was dependent on a good marriage for future financial security and whose narrative, because of this, would be played out in the familiar context of her “impossible” affection for the poet who could not provide it.
Many contemporary female directors seem to use tactility as a shorthand for the rich interior lives of women: a heroine’s physical relationship to the material world can allow a visually astute director to hint at a sensuous and idiosyncratic something that cannot be articulated. This is certainly the case with Campion. Her Fanny Brawne follows in the footsteps of Lucretia Martel’s Niña Santa or Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar— characters who are always touching stuff in order to tell the viewer what’s going on inside. And this is the singular function of textiles in Bright Star. We see Brawne bent over her hoop and needle; working up a collar; carefully tying a ribbon; enjoying the sensation of a breeze-blown curtain, or refusing to examine the quality of her sister’s sampler, and we are meant to read all this in terms of the character’s hidden depths. This is all very well, but the problem here is that there doesn’t really seem to be that much depth to hide. The viewer is meant to trust that all this sewing is the sign of something profound, but there is no other evidence of Brawne’s purported complexity. The most we can learn about her from Campion is that she likes clothes; that she prefers wit over intellect (lying about reading Milton and only ever being able to muster up an interest in Keats’ poetry when she understands that it might refer to herself); and that she has an incredible capacity for self-absorption (luxuriating in the drama of thwarted affection in the most tedious and irritating way.) In this sense, Campion’s characterisation is not really very different from the way that Brawne is represented in the many chauvenistic biographies of Keats that were produced before the 1960s: she is much the same fashion-obsessed, over-emotional ignoramus: an annoying distraction in a nice frock. Far from bolstering her own credentials as a feminist director, then, Campion’s use of stitch and textiles in this film reinforces ideas of nineteenth-century femininity that are disturbingly conservative. Brawne’s discovery of romance simply heightens her own fashionable narcissism and female desire is set in the context of what seems to be a mere preoccupation with material trifles and baubles. In its failure to address the questions it explicitly raises about stitch as a creative outlet, a form of labour, and a potential source of income, the film does little to disturb the notion that a fondness for textiles could be anything more than pointless or enervating, a familiar sign of women’s domestic thrall.
And then there’s the matter of Campion’s particular aesthetic decisions concerning textiles. Though Janet Patterson’s costume design was, at its best, both beautiful and inspiring, some of the garment choices were very weird indeed: Mr Brown’s tartan trews were as ridiculous and misplaced as his “Scottish” accent; Abbie Cornish wore crocheted shawls and boleros of a kind not seen till at least the 1850s, and her younger sister “Toots” sported a curiously cropped Fairisle cardigan over a hundred years before its time. I would forgive all of these historical anachronisms on the grounds of Campion and Patterson’s familiarly stylised creativity, but I’m afraid I became quite fixated on the washing that seemed to be perpetually hung out on Hampstead Heath. In one quite ludicrous scene, Fanny wanders woefully among lines of damp linen inexplicably left out in the rain. Anyone who who has read Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s great poem or who knows anything at all about nineteenth-century domestic life would be aware that, for women in households such as Brawne’s, washing day was a major and momentous event. No self-respecting washerwoman or maidservant, mother or daughter, would have left those things just hanging there in the middle of a shower. Indeed, to do so shows a disregard for household textiles quite bizarre in a woman purportedly obsessed by them. Instead of wallowing in doomed romance, Brawne should have been bringing in the bloody washing .
Now I realise that I am a bit (ahem) hung up on the washing, but I think that Campion’s use of the linen-laden lines on Hampstead Heath is symptomatic of something larger and a little more troubling. Through its focus on aesthetic surfaces and pointlessly lovely tableaux, the film actually does an injustice to the basic texture of the lives of nineteenth-century women like Brawne. Why have her heroine interested in stitch and design at all if this is merely to be used as a cinematic conceit that adds little to her character? There are some other basic textures that are singularly lacking here as well. If I knew absolutely nothing about the poetry of John Keats, I would really be none the wiser after watching Bright Star. The most you can really glean about Keats’ creative impulses from this film is that Fanny’s boobs seem to represent to him the promise of an ecstatic (pneumatic) present.
Campion has apparently spoken of Bright Star as being inspired by Bresson’s Man Escaped. (which is, incidentally, my favourite film). To me, this is laughably pretentious : like comparing Hollyoaks to Mizoguchi.* Actually, Hollyoaks seems quite an appropriate point of reference for the film’s sorry lack of depth and its championing of adolescent self-regard. Take away the senselessly gorgeous textiles, the flower-filled meadows, the strangely stilted dialogue and the too-tasteful interiors and what’s left is the thin drama of teenage obsession. However, Bright Star is a very sneaky film too: because of its style, its “historic” setting, its purported literary context, and Campion’s undoubted talent for the symbolic and emblematic, the film gets away with it: Campion’s signature directorial style makes us feel as if we are being shown something important and momentous, when in actuality what we are being purveyed is mere cinematic candy floss. So this is a film that is both intellectually hollow and horribly otiose, but which stitches up the viewer simply by being visually persuasive. In the end, what Bright Star reminded me of most was an issue of Selvedge: it has that visual wow factor and the thing is just so well produced that we feel that we must be somehow improved simply by consuming it. But (and I say this as someone who has occasionally written for that magazine) in the end there’s very little there of substance beyond the pretty pictures.
* These two reviews are typical in their descriptions of Brawne as a ‘seamstress’ or their association of her ‘spirit’ and ‘self possession’ to her supposed relationship to stitch.
**Another British soap comparison: at her most histrionic, Abbie Cornish bears a disturbing resemblance to Mary from Coronation Street.
I dedicate this post to Kris Steyaert, a fine Keats scholar and a very good friend.
Warning! this post may seem both tedious and incomprehensible to anyone who is not an Archers fan . . .
I arrived home from work yesterday to find that a thrilling package had turned up in the post. On opening the envelope, the mere words “Ambridge DK and chunky,” were enough to send me into hysteric raptures. Tom could get no sense out of me for quite some time. “Look!” I shrieked, “check out Christine Barford in her horse-themed intarsia!” Ravelry really is an amazing thing. Last week, on the lively Archers’ discussion board, Woolhemina mentioned that she had six copies of a booklet of patterns featuring the characters of everyone’s favourite long-running BBC radio soap clad in delightful ’80s knitwear. I was lucky enough to score the last one. Life may never be the same again.
I am not ashamed to say that I am a long-time Archers listener. I became obsessed with it while completing my first University degree. I well recall preparing for exams while being gripped by Clive Horrobin’s notorious raid on the village post office and Susan Carter’s subsequent imprisonment (oh, that she might have stayed inside!). I didn’t own a TV until 1999, and till then, my sole source of frothy-narrative-pleasure came courtesy of Brookfield and Grange Farm. A decade passed by to the sounds of Mark and Caroline’s car crash, Nelson’s disappearance, the destruction of GM crops, the doings of the evil Simon Pemberton. Oh, happy days!
What’s interesting about my Archers fascination – both then and now — is that, with a very few exceptions (Ed, Fallon, Jill) I despise, or am annoyed by every single character. But perhaps being irritated (or, in the case of Kenton, perpetually embarrassed) is part of the pleasure of The Archers. I love to shout at the radio whenever whingeing, needy Emma appears (will she ever get her comeuppance?), bawl expletives at Shula (I think I hate her most of all) or berate the script writers for representing Lynda’s concerns about the preservation of ancient rights of way as unnecessarily absurd. And clearly The Archers has this effect on others as well. My Dad, who is a very mild, easy-going sort of man, professes a violent dislike for Dayvidd Archer. “Its something about his voice,” he told me, “he’s just so bloody smug.” Indeed, its in the exchanges between Dayvidd and the vile Pipsqueak (his firstborn) that my Archers affection finds its limits. If they start discussing another earthworm survey, or reinforcing their father-daughter bond over the intricacies of bovine parturition, I just have to turn the radio off.
For those of you who don’t know, The Archers is Britain’s longest-running soap opera: set in a small rural community in the Midlands, and developed under consultation with the Ministry of Agriculture, it was originally designed to inform as well as entertain. The first episode was broadcast in the Spring of 1950–when post-war rationing was still in force–and the narrative provided a context for the dramatisation of themes that might improve productivity and accelerate the modernisation of British farming. The rural setting still remains the occasion for much issue-led drama, and the short lapse between recording and transmisssion often allows the programme to respond to urgent and pressing events in the British farming world (such as foot and mouth, or Bovine TB). So while I despise most of the characters, and though I think the show’s script writing is often pretty poor, I do enjoy its country context. Indeed, perhaps the most pleasing thing about The Archers is its pace and rhythm. Unlike other soaps, events unfold in real time. In this sense, the choices of the show’s writers and editors are often brave and important. Compare, for example, the different ways in which Coronation Street and The Archers have dealt with dementia-related storylines: in Coronation Street, a character was diagnosed and whisked off screen within a matter of weeks, while in The Archers, the condition is unfolding, slowly and painfully, over months and years, highlighting many life-changing, distressing and difficult decisions. Things take time, on The Archers, and they are also reassuringly regular, predictable. My life is neither regular or predictable, and for me, it is sad but true that each year’s diurnal round can be measured by familiar Archers events: the village panto, the single wicket contest, the flower and produce show, the happy reappearance of the Grundy World of Christmas. “When shall I make the Christmas cake?” Tom asked me, just a few days ago. “Not sure,” I said, “just wait until Jill Archer mentions Stir-up-Sunday . . . ”
Now: to the patterns. The booklet makes reference to the death of Polly Perks, and Nelson’s wine bar: I reckon that dates it to 1982 or 3. As one might imagine, it is peppered with ’80s attrocities (the thing that Caroline is wearing is just too horrendous to show), but there are actually some interesting patterns in here. One in particular caught my eye. . . . I have stared at this garment sported by prejudiced Brummy landlord, Sid Perks, many times, and am still not sure whether its pint-pot-and-dart motifs are a work of design genius, or a source of knitting horror. You must decide for yourselves.
As you can see at the top of this post, in addition to the patterns, Argyll Wools (still listed as a going business concern in Guiseley) also issued an Ambridge yarn range. Ambridge Yarn! Amazing! The fibre-composition is very much of its time, combining “the softness of machine washable wool enhanced with the durability of nylon”, but it did come in 33 shades, of which just 5 would enable you to knit a Sid Perks pint pot sweater! I am beginning to dream of unused skeins of Ambridge yarn lurking around the nation’s charity shops. Imagine!
As well as the more outlandish ’80s designs, I actually think many of the men’s garments in the booklet are rather pleasing — in particular this pair of sweaters sported by Phil and Jethro. I felt quite moved to see this happy picture of Norman Painting, sans beard. Archers listeners will know that Painting — who is depicted on the left, and who played Phil Archer — died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 85. His voice was heard in the first episode of the programme in May 1950, and will last be heard in one to be broadcast on November 22nd. A successful script writer as well as an actor, Painting also wrote over a thousand Archers‘ episodes in the 60s, 70s and early 80s — often attempting to write Phil out of the narrative to give himself a rest. I actually own a copy of Painting’s Archers memoir, Forever Ambridge (ahem), and I’ll remember Phil most for his love of pigs (which I share). I was very pleased to see him included in my now-to-be-treasured Archers pattern booklet.
*PS Those who have not yet experienced the delights of The Archers may be interested to note that you can download each episode as a podcast. Hurrah!*
**PPS I am feeling better**
It has been a very frustrating week. I’ve not been up to anything much, and have been unable to go outdoors. Tom decided to cheer me up with a non-taxing outing, and we drove to Hawick. I love to walk in the Borders, but when one cannot walk, pootling around in the car will do just fine. In a curious way, the landscape reminds me of home (Lancashire) with its hedgerows, its dry stone walls. By this, of course, I mean that what is familiar to me is the way that the land is parcelled up — the way that property and productivity are visible in it — and in this sense the steep valleys, the mill buildings, the nineteenth-century workers’ housing, are very familiar to me as well. Like Lancashire, this is textile country. What industry remains — in the brand-led processing of luxury yarns — is a mere vestige of what it once was, and yet the past inspires a tremendous amount of local pride. This is very evident in the new Borders Textile Towerhouse, which has recently opened, and is well worth a visit. The building (a restored sixteenth-century fortified tower) is truly fabulous, and the historical exhibits are thoughtfully and carefully put together. I liked the wheels, frames, and looms. . .
. . . and you can’t go wrong with a Trade Union Banner — particularly one that depicts and celebrates the stocking frame.
Tom inspected some knitwear. . .
. . . found himself a new bonnet.
and pondered the practicality of the kilt combinations.
Upstairs, there was an exhibit exploring the ‘future’ of Borders’ textiles, which largely focused on golf sweaters, and Vivienne Westwood. Now, the sweaters aren’t really my thing, but I will say (having examined them carefully) that they were beautifully designed and exceptionally well-made. However, I was so disappointed to encounter berloody Westwood, yet again. However hard one tries, one just can’t get away from her! I can think of several other exhibitions in several other Scottish institutions, all of which explore the past and future of Scottish textiles — and all of which conclude with some obligatory tartan / argyle / tweedy gubbins designed by Westwood. Whether or not one wants the ‘future’ of Scottish textiles to look like Westwood’s parodic aristocratic costumes, one certainly has to question whether Scotland really wants to celebrate a designer whose bespoke ‘Scottish’ materials are often not what they purport to be, and whose shameless appropriation of the Harris Tweed Orb has probably done more harm than good. (Yes, you can tell I talked to the weavers of Harris when I was last there). But whatever one thinks of Westwood, to have her represent the future of Borders’ textiles to me suggests a certain paucity of imagination. Over the past few years, I’ve met so many superb independent Scottish weavers, designers, artists, and makers — all of whom are graduates of the Borders’ textile college at Galashiels. Why not devote this fine, new exhibition space to some exciting, contemporary, truly forward-looking and local talent, rather than a hasbeen of metropolitan high fashion?
Invigorated by anti-Westwood feeling, we went outside and bought some Hawick balls for my cough, and I got Tom to take a picture of my new hat.
This is the much-made Sideways Grande Cloche from Laura Irwin’s Boutique Knits. It was a quick knit, but — as I was attempting to manipulate a super-bulky yarn on 5.5 mm needles — not a particularly enjoyable one. I wanted to create a very dense, firm fabric — and it is certainly that. Following Mel and Sarah’s advice, I cast on 27 stitches (rather than the 45 recommended), and made several knitterly modifications to a suprisingly non-knitterly pattern (casting on provisionally; joining the brim with 3 needle bind off; knitting the crown in the round &c). I won’t be making another one of these in a hurry, but this is a very jolly hat, that goes well with a jolly coat, and which I can hide my non-jolly flu-ridden phiz in. It is ravelled here.
(Scavenging for minerals among the hazardous electronic waste at a dump in Accra. Image © Times Online)
Having recently replaced the mac I work on at home, I needed to get rid of my old one. This machine was five years old, had been repaired several times, and was becoming rather unreliable. I didn’t want to sell it, and neither did I want to give it to a charity shop to sell, since a buyer might (quite rightly) complain when it gave up the ghost. It might, however, be useful to someone who was in need of a computer. So I listed the mac on freecycle — a system I like both because of its informal grass-roots element, and because it keeps stuff out of landfill. I received over 80 responses in a couple of hours. Many of these were a plain “yes, please I’ll have it”, some were a little peculiar in their human-interest element, and some responses were a little disturbing and demanding. I ignored the last category, and out of the rest selected a recipient who lived nearby and who, when he turned up to collect the mac, was just as pleasant and straightforward as he’d sounded. Late yesterday evening I changed the freecycle listing to ‘taken’, and thanked everyone for their interest. And then the weirdness started. I began to receive a barrage of odd emails. Some of these messages were from people who told me they were kicking themselves for not noticing my ad earlier. Some emails came from individuals who were slightly peeved that I hadn’t selected them, and felt like telling me about it. I received one berating me for not noticing that they had placed a ‘wanted’ ad for a computer a few weeks ago. And then there were the others – the messages which a) told me I was stupid, or b) informed me that they were sure they were a much more worthy recipient than the person I’d selected. There were quite a few of these. Here are the ‘best’:
‘”Gone to a Good home” — unlikely — suggest you check ebay or gumtree over the next few weeks. At least I would have kept it and used it for my kids education’
‘You’ve just thrown away £300 of YOUR money. It winds me up how naive some people are.’
Now, perhaps I am naive — in the sense that I think that people are perfectly capable of participating in systems of exchange where money is not involved. I am of course also canny enough to realise that many resellers may well use freecycle for profit — but frankly, this is their business, and not mine. In getting rid of the mac I was pleased to be able to help someone out with something that they needed and I didn’t — but this pleasure was not essential to the transaction. I was simply getting rid of a thing that I didn’t need, and that I didn’t want to sell because it was an unreliable thing of uncertain value. If someone else felt able to sell that thing then that would be, as I said, their business. But what I did not want to do was to relegate a thing that still worked, and which could still be of some use, to the tip, where it would end up on one of those mountains of poisonous waste with which we are now blithely polluting Ghana and Brazil, and which are the stuff of my nightmares. So to the individuals who have sent me these peculiar, abusive, and upsetting messages, I would like to say that the worthiness of the recipient of the thing is not really an issue: the point is that the thing is being recycled and put to use, rather than being thrown away. However, if you do want to bring a moral element into such exchanges, you might like to think of the bigger picture: the one that is at the top of this post. Thankyou.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not like The F-Word, but it is worth watching it occasionally for a few cheap laughs. You know the bit I mean: when Gordon tells you how to make his pea and lettuce soup in just one minute, all in words of just one syllable. Riotous! We are somehow meant to see Gordon’s failure to use any adjectives at all as the signature of his virility, “full of balls, energy, and really great food,” as the Channel-4 tag-line puts it. (Full of balls? Sure is. . .) And the gender stereotypes peddled in Gordon’s brisk how-tos are just as strange and crass as those associated with Nigella. Man does not describe. Oh no. Describing words redundant, and unmanly. Man only know how to use imperative. Imperative style of cooking instructions works best with short, firm words. More difficult with two syllables. Very hard to make the word “mushrooms” sound manly. “Mushrooms” does not sound like manly decree. Man quickly mutters “mushrooms” then gets on with real business of shouting Real Man Words. “WHISK! TOSS! STIR!” etc. If Nigella’s mellifluous, adjectival style is supposed to be read in direct relation to her cleavage, then the F-Word’s use of the imperative might be seen as the culinary equivalent of a wanking circle, with wee Gordon in the centre, braying out commands (Shaft! Girth! Beat! Etc)
But I bring the F-word to your attention because of a particular moment in Tuesday’s show. The redoubtable Janet Street Porter appeared on set, fresh from her carefully stage-managed experience of rearing and slaughtering two veal calves. The viewer had already been treated to the money-shot of the poor beasts’ deaths, and what we clearly needed now was Janet to preach at us about our lamentable food-buying habits. We must never buy cheap meat again. No we mustn’t. Instead, we should feast only on luxury meat products humanely reared by media luminaries. While dispensing her new-found farming wisdom, Janet was dressed in a formless top, machine-knit in a vibrant shade of puce. It was a truly hideous garment (sorry, Janet).
“I suppose you knit that yourself?” said Gordon, inferring that Janet’s experience of slaughtering “her boys” had turned her all rustic, or something.
“No I fooking didn’t, Gordon,” retorted Janet, “this is a designer item.”
Now, I know that I’m more sensitive than your average jane to anti-knitting slurs, but this was about so much more than knitting. Janet enthused about how raising the calves, and watching the process of their lives and deaths, had completely transformed her perception of meat. She now knew what was involved with what she put on her plate. And everyone should think about how the meat they eat is raised and killed. Apart from the patronising attitude, and the unavoidable questions Janet did not address about cost, class, and the ethics of raising a niche luxury product like veal, this is sort of fair enough. Yes, Janet. We should all think about process, and production. But, the problem is, that she hadn’t really engaged with process at all. She had merely played a game to camera: a game with a neatly plotted narrative arc, with contrived hooks and encounters, with a particular rhetorical language (that of reluctant maternity—quite bizarre) and with moments of typically ‘direct’ and ‘irreverant’ Street-Porter-like entertainment. “’Oh no, it’s pooing again’, moans Janet,” to quote The F-Word website. Janet had engaged about as much with the slow processes and difficult realities of farming as she had with the making of her sweater, and her quick retort about the obvious superiority of ‘designer’ to ‘hand-made’ spoke volumes.
So is it just me, or does so much of this currently popular moralising about process (particularly as it concerns food) have an incredibly hollow ring? It is just far too easy for Gordon, Janet and their like to preach to the middle classes about the importance of the means of producing edible luxuries, before nipping out to snap up, promote, or sell other commodities with little thought about the process of their making—or the livelihoods of their makers, for that matter.
But one place where such discussions of process are neither hollow or easy is in Richard Sennett’s excellent new book, The Craftsman. If you haven’t read it yet, you definitely should. In a series of radical, lyrical essays, this venerable sociologist makes the case for a reassessment of the idea of work itself. The making of things for use or beauty are never, he argues, a matter of individual brilliance, the romantic imagination, or isolated talent. Rather, for him, excellence lies somewhere between the eye and hand, in material practices and processes, and the slow engagement with them over time. Sennett’s notion of craft is something equally applicable to the design of a mobile-phone or a line of linux code, as much as a Stradivari violin , or a particular recipe for Poulet a la d’Albufera. For him, all these ‘crafts’ involve the same struggle with tools and processes, the same issues of encountering and solving problems, of developing and refining skill and focus, of learning how repetition itself can be creative, and of coming to know the singular pleasure of doing something well for its own sake. It is a book of tremendous breadth and sweep but which is also rich in details. In fact, for me, Sennett’s singularity, both as a writer and a public intellectual, is found in such details: in the bumper that really bothers him in the parking garage of a post-modern building; in his discussion of the symbolic values of bricks; in his thoughtful self-awareness of being an outsider as he watches a group of healthcare professionals transfixed by the image of a troublesome large intestine. And any man who can begin a sentence with the words “consider, for instance, an irregular tomato” and from that opening build an argument about the how an idea of virtue inheres in thing-ness, is OK by me.
Lurking around the back of Sennett’s thesis is a familiar argument about the de-humanising effects of the modern and post-modern division of labour. He is quite explicit about his fondness for the all-encompassing curiosity of the mid-eighteenth century, or the undifferentiated artisanal labour of the medieval workshop. Not for him Adam Smith’s efficiently produced pins. This practical resistance to the division of labour—and the division of knowledge too, perhaps—is something he clearly applies to his own intellectual craft-work. He writes about the way children treat the spaces and equipment of playgrounds just as articulately as he does about Martin Heidegger.
Sennett’s thoughts about process have multiple and resonant contexts for me. For example, his remarks about being-in-the-thing came to my mind very strongly, when I read Mandy’s account of the pleasure of the rhythm of knitting her swallowtail shawl:
“We might think, as did Adam Smith describing industrial labour, of routine as mindless, that a person doing something over and over goes missing mentally; we might equate routine and boredom. For people who develop sophisticated hand skills, it’s nothing like this. Doing something over and over is stimulating when organised as looking ahead. The substance of the routine may change, metapmorhose, improve, but the emptional payoff is one’s experience of doing it again. There’s nothing strange about this experience. We all know it; it is rhythm. Built into the contractions of the human heart, the skilled crafsman has extended rhythm to the hand and eye.” (p. 175)
“To arrive at that goal [that of being fit-for-purpose] the work process has to do something distasteful to the tidy mind, which is to dwell temporarily in mess—wrong moves, false starts, dead ends. Indeed, the probing craftsman does more than encounter mess; he or she creates it as a means of understanding working procedures.” (p.161)
And what Sennett has to say about the importance of modesty, and the awareness of one’s own inadequacies, while engaging with material processes is very moot too. Perhaps this is something for Janet and Gordon to bear in mind.
*You can hear Richard Sennett talking with Laurie Taylor and Grayson Perry about craftsmanship, and process in this episode of Thinking Allowed.